Public Shaming on the Internet

03/11/2015 07:08 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2015

The "Blog Blog Project" continues in 2015! Here, I post student voices from the University of Delaware. In the class, Digital Technology and Politics, students have been examining how technology is changing the way we interact with one another. This blog, by Kristi Iannelli, a junior Political Science major with minors in Journalism and Political Communication, was nominated by her peers to be published here.

"Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"

Justine Sacco, 30 years old, published the tweet that would destroy her public image on December 20th of 2013, as she was about to board a plane from London to South Africa. She refreshed her feed periodically while she waited to board, but didn't get any replies -- not surprising, as she had only 170 followers at the time. The flight from Heathrow took about 11 hours, and when she got cell service back upon her arrival in South Africa, she was shocked. Her career and her personal life were in shambles; she had been digitally shamed.

Sacco, the senior director of corporate communications at media conglomerate IAC, was terminated from her position at the firm before her plane even landed in Cape Town. Her family in South Africa, fervent supporters of the African National Congress party, told her that she had disgraced them on both a personal and political level; her friends were embarrassed to be connected with her.

Sam Biddle of Gawker was anonymously tipped off to Sacco's inelegant tweet and retweeted it to his 15,000 followers, as well as publishing it on his Gawker blog -- the ironic headline, "And Now, a Funny Holiday Tweet from IAC's PR Boss."

The urge to shame her publicly was too tantalizing to pass up.

Public shaming is a natural human urge. It was a common form of punishment in early America in the 18th and 19th centuries and was slowly phased out in most states around 1900. Delaware, for reference, kept the pillory until 1905 and public whippings until 1972. The Internet's ubiquity makes it a perfect vehicle for public shaming, though, and destroying a life and a career becomes as easy as pushing a button and exposing an ill-considered message to masses of angry hordes. Moreover, those who start the wave of shaming have an actual incentive to do so -- they gain popularity and standing in the digital community, see exponential Klout growth, and expand their base of followers dramatically.

Simon Mainwaring's We First includes the charmingly optimistic sentiment that "enabled by the Internet and social media, we are... awakening our innate capacity for empathy" (2001). But the Internet, and social media in particular, have exhibited an alarming tendency to do just the opposite. In the 11 hours while Sacco was in the air between London and Cape Town, #HasJustineLandedYet trended on Twitter and she became an international laughingstock. The Internet offers a largely anonymous venue for users to decontextualize others' idiotic comments and then villainize them.

This idea, that individuals can wield an enormous level of power in informing and exposing the lives of others, is reflected in Clay Shirky's 2009 chapter, "Everyone is a Media Outlet," from Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organization. Here, Shirky decries the rise of Web blogs and the "mass amateurization" of news dissemination. No longer are journalists and news organization held to a certain standard of professionalism he argues; the flood of social media exposés means that the most important thing is to be first to see the opportunity for destruction... and pounce.

This mass amateurization is directly linked to the trend of social media shaming. Fundamentally, the trend in shaming reflects a misunderstanding of the power of social media. Even a person with 170 Twitter followers can end up reaching hundreds of thousands if retweeted by the right media personality. Even a person with just 15,000 Twitter followers can ruin another's career. If every amateur social justice warrior on the Internet were held to the journalistic standards that Shirky espouses, we might see a great deal more of Mainwaring's idea of the human "innate capacity for empathy."

Digital shaming is, at best, a reflection of the voice and power that social media has given to the disenfranchised. It takes a low level of privilege and digital literacy to be able to publish a tweet; individuals who would usually be silenced by the established power structure can publicize injustices that may otherwise have gone unnoticed. At the same time, it can be a weapon of digital destruction, capable of torpedoing a person's entire life in a matter of hours.

Justine Sacco's story has an ironic end. About a year later, the Gawker writer who had initially retweeted her and started the conflagration of her career posted an insensitive message of his own on the internet ("Bring Back Bullying") and then, not so long after, a blog post about what he gained from being internet shamed and how he regrets his treatment of Miss Sacco.

In an age when interpersonal communication is primarily driven by digital technology, it is indisputable that bullying is already back -- and that it has taken the form of digital public shaming.